The Top 20 Natural Remedies for Cold and Flu | Chris Kresser

The Top 20 Natural Remedies for Cold and Flu

by Chris Kresser

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Using natural remedies to prevent or shorten a cold or flu can keep the illness from spreading between families, as it has with this couple.
These natural remedies for the cold and flu can help keep your family healthy. iStock/PeopleImages

It’s official—cold and flu season is here! While common-sense strategies such as frequently washing your hands and avoiding contact with infected individuals can reduce your chances of getting sick, the reality is that exposure to cold and flu bugs is largely unavoidable.

The viruses that cause a cold or the flu lurk at work, school, daycare, and everywhere in between. And even if you yourself manage to stay virus free, there’s a high chance a family member or partner will bring a bug home. In the United States, the season is roughly fall and winter, peaking between December and February—but it can last until May.

Should you happen to catch a cold or the flu, you don’t have to turn to drugs and OTC medications to avoid the misery of nasal congestion, sore throat, coughing, fever, and just feeling wiped out. Read on to learn 20 natural remedies for the cold and flu that can significantly boost your immunity and shorten the duration of illness, so you can get back to feeling your best.

Table of contents:

Is It a Cold or the Flu?

Upper respiratory illnesses take a considerable toll on the American population. According to CDC estimates, Americans suffer approximately 30 million cases of the flu per year. (1) On top of that, American adults experience two to three colds per year and children even more—somewhere in the range of six to eight per year is a conservative estimate. (2) While both illnesses are unpleasant, there are some important differences between a cold and the flu.

You don’t need to suffer through cold and flu season, and you don’t need to turn to over-the-counter solutions to feel better. Check out this article for my top 20 natural remedies to ease symptoms and shorten your illness. #healthylifestyle #wellness #chriskresser

A cold is an acute, self-limiting viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Colds can be caused by more than 200 different viruses, with coronaviruses and rhinoviruses the most frequent culprits. (3) The sheer number of cold-causing viruses in existence means that the body has a hard time building up resistance to them—this is why we have yet to develop a “cure” for the common cold! The common cold spreads through hand contact with an infected person, by touching a contaminated object they’ve handled, or by encountering aerosolized  droplets released during a sneeze or cough.

The flu, on the other hand, is a contagious viral respiratory infection that causes mild to severe illness. (4) There are four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C, and D. Humans are primarily affected by influenza viruses A and B—these viruses are responsible for seasonal epidemics of the flu each winter. Type C causes a very mild respiratory illness, and type D infects cattle, so these two are significantly less worrisome.

Like the common cold, the flu is spread by virus-laden airborne droplets when infected people cough, sneeze, or talk. Less often, a person may contract the flu by touching a surface or object that harbors the flu virus and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes.

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Should You Get a Flu Shot?

The flu vaccine (or nasal spray) is available in doctors’ offices, drugstore chains, grocery stores, and even drive-through clinics. However, a growing body of research indicates that it may not always be as effective as we’ve been led to believe. Perhaps even more importantly, the flu vaccine may have some adverse health consequences. (5)

A flu vaccine “effective” in one season may increase your risk of developing the flu in a subsequent season. This effect is due to a process called “antibody-dependent enhancement,” which occurs when virus–antibody complexes adapt and find alternate ways into cells, typically after a person receives the vaccine. (6) Getting the flu vaccine may also blunt the effectiveness of subsequent vaccines and increase the chance that you will infect others. (7, 8)

The efficacy of the flu vaccine is also up for debate. Three large scientific reviews have noted only “a modest effect” of the influenza vaccine on reducing flu symptoms in children, adults, and the elderly. (9, 10, 11) In addition, a large part of the purported benefit of flu vaccines may be due to the “healthy-user bias,” a phenomenon in which the subjects that voluntarily enroll in a trial (such as to receive a flu vaccine) are, on average, healthier than the general population—meaning that they are less likely to get sick in the first place, thus exaggerating the vaccine’s preventive advantages in study results.

Last but not least, conflicts of interest abound in vaccine research. The authors of the reviews mentioned above noted that industry-funded studies were significantly more likely to report conclusions in favor of vaccines than publicly funded studies. Furthermore, they reported:

The review[s] showed that reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin, but there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions and spurious notoriety of the studies. (12)

Who Should Consider a Flu Shot

While for many of us the flu is a temporary (albeit uncomfortable) problem, there are certain populations who are more at risk for serious complications related to the illness and may benefit from receiving the flu shot. Healthcare workers with direct patient contact may benefit from the vaccine, as they are in frequent contact with sick patients who may be carrying the flu virus. (13) Asthmatics may also benefit, since viral respiratory infections take a greater toll on their health than that of the average non-asthmatic individual. (14) Finally, the flu vaccine may also be valuable for immunocompromised and elderly people because in these populations, the flu can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening conditions such as bacterial pneumonia and respiratory failure. (15, 16)

It’s important to weigh the evidence and make your own decisions when it comes to the flu vaccine. If you’re worried about the possibility of serious complications, getting a flu shot might be the right choice for you.

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Cold Medicines Only Suppress Symptoms

When many people feel the first signs of a cold or the flu, they begin popping over-the-counter pharmaceuticals such as decongestants, antihistamines, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen and aspirin. However, evidence indicates that these drugs do nothing to shorten the duration of illness or prevent illness in the first place; they merely suppress symptoms. (17) Furthermore, many of these drugs come with significant side effects. See my article “How Safe Is Your Over-the-Counter Medicine?” to learn more about the health risks associated with these drugs.

Antibiotics Are Ineffective for Colds and Flu

A surprising number of physicians still prescribe antibiotics to patients with cold and flu symptoms, even though it’s well known that antibiotics—intended to prevent or kill bacterial infections—are completely useless for treating viral infections. According to recent statistics, a shocking 25 percent of antibiotics are inappropriately prescribed, and an additional 35 percent of prescriptions are “potentially inappropriate.” Many of these inappropriate prescriptions are given to patients (often children) with upper respiratory infections, sinusitis, and sore throats, which are most frequently viral in nature and not caused by bacteria. (18)

The indiscriminate prescribing of antibiotics is one of the primary reasons why antibiotic resistance has become such a pressing problem in our society. To stem the tide of antibiotic resistance, we need to significantly reduce our use of antibiotics, especially in cases where they aren’t even useful, such as in the treatment of colds and flu.

The Growing Problem of Viral Drug Resistance

It’s not just bacteria that are becoming resistant to pharmaceutical drugs; viruses are also developing drug resistance. Recent research has revealed that the influenza A virus, the virus responsible for seasonal epidemics of the flu, can quickly acquire resistance to anti-influenza drugs by mutating viral components. (19) This poses a problem for the conventional medical system, which relies on antiviral drugs to treat severe flu cases.

Due to problems with the flu vaccine and over-the-counter drugs, lack of efficacy of antibiotics, and the growing problem of viral drug resistance, there is a pressing need for novel treatment options for colds and flu. Fortunately, we already have a time-tested pharmacy for colds and flu at our fingertips in the form of remedies derived from plants and other natural products.

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20 Natural Remedies for Cold and Flu

We can promote recovery when we catch a cold or the flu, and even prevent it from taking hold, without relying on drugs—because nature has provided us with an abundance of botanicals, vitamins, and minerals that boost our immunity and even attack the cold and flu viruses, thereby both reducing symptoms and shortening the duration of illness.

1. Andrographis: To Reduce Duration

Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) is an herbaceous plant native to India and Sri Lanka. It is a primary herb for the treatment of fever and infectious illnesses in both traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine.

The antimicrobial and immune-enhancing properties of andrographis have garnered significant scientific attention, and research has shown that this botanical is a powerful ally in the treatment of colds and flu. When taken within the first 36 to 48 hours of illness, andrographis can significantly reduce the severity and duration of upper respiratory infections. (20) Andrographolide, a primary compound derived from andrographis, may also inhibit influenza virus replication and reduce virus-induced inflammation, the cause of multiple flu symptoms such as fatigue and muscle soreness. (21, 22) In fact, these beneficial properties have made andrographis a popular remedy in Europe for the treatment of influenza. (23)

Because the available research on andrographis is variable in terms of extracts and dosages used, it is difficult to determine the optimal dosage for treating colds and flu. (24) However, the lower end of the dosage range used in clinical trials is 400 mg of andrographis (standardized for andrographolide content) three times per day, and the upper end is 1,000 to 2,000 mg three times per day. Andrographis at these dosages is intended for short-term use.

2. Honey: For Coughs and to Speed Recovery

Honey promotes recovery from viral respiratory infections. Manuka honey, a type of honey produced by bees that feed on the nectar of the New Zealand tea tree, inhibits flu virus replication. (It also boosts the effectiveness of certain antiviral drugs used for the treatment of influenza—the prescription drug Tamiflu is one example.) (25, 26) Honey has also been shown to be more effective than dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine, the most common active ingredients in OTC cough medicines, at improving nightly cough and sleep quality in children with upper respiratory infections. (27)

Methylglyoxal (MGO) is the primary anti-influenza ingredient in Manuka honey. When selecting Manuka honey for medicinal uses, look for the “MGO” label on the jar—it should state a minimum MGO content of 83. The higher the MGO rating, the higher the level of antiviral activity of the honey.

3. Propolis: To Speed Recovery

Propolis is a resinous mixture produced when bees mix their saliva and beeswax with secretions gathered from tree buds and other botanical sources. Bees use propolis to protect their community from bacterial, fungal, and viral pathogens, essentially making propolis the “immune system” of the hive. It turns out that the “immune system” of the beehive also benefits the human immune system. Propolis contains polyphenolic compounds with anti-influenza activity and, when administered nasally, may significantly accelerate recovery from the common cold. (28, 29)

To accelerate recovery from colds and flu, begin with one tablespoon of high-MGO Manuka honey per day. Complement this with a propolis throat spray, such as this one by Beekeeper’s Naturals.

4. Bovine Colostrum: For Prevention

Bovine colostrum is the first milk produced a cow following the birth of a calf. It has a similar structure to human colostrum and proffers comparable immune-boosting benefits. In fact, bovine colostrum has been found to be three times more effective at preventing the flu than the flu vaccine and significantly reduces the number of episodes and hospitalizations for respiratory infections in children. (30, 31) You can purchase bovine colostrum as a powder or capsule; just choose a supplement from grass-fed, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free cows to ensure that you are getting the healthiest product possible.

5. Chinese Skullcap: For Prevention and Treatment

Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) is an antiviral that’s often effective against drug-resistant and nonresistant strains of influenza and cold-causing viruses. (32, 33) It’s been shown to stop viruses from reproducing, inhibit proteins present on influenza viruses that facilitate their adhesion to cells, suppress viral gene expression, protect cell membranes from virus-associated inflammation, and boost immunity.

The root extract of Chinese skullcap can be taken for colds and flu in tincture form at a dose of one-fourth to one-half teaspoon three times daily or as one teaspoon of powdered root three to six times a day. Chinese skullcap should not be taken during pregnancy and should be used with caution if you are taking any medications because it can increase the bioavailability of the drugs, intensifying their effects on the body.   

6. Echinacea: For Prevention and Treatment

Echinacea refers to a group of herbaceous flowering plants in the daisy family native to Eastern and Central North America. Historically, Native Americans used echinacea to treat severe infections; today, the anti-infective properties of echinacea have been demonstrated by several clinical trials.

In one trial, 755 subjects were given either Echinacea purpurea or placebo for four months; those in the echinacea group experienced a significantly reduced occurrence of virally confirmed cold episodes. (34) A second clinical trial found echinacea to be as effective as the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) for the early treatment of influenza virus infections. However, unlike oseltamivir, echinacea does not run the risk of inducing antiviral drug resistance. (35)

Echinacea can be consumed as a tea or tincture or in capsules. If you take echinacea in a liquid form (tea or tincture), retain the dose in your mouth for approximately 10 seconds before swallowing to boost the local antiviral effects on oral tissues. (36)

7. Elderberry: To Shorten Duration and Treat Symptoms

The small, dark purple berries of the elderberry plant have a long history of use for the treatment of colds and flu. Elderberry extracts alleviate cold and flu symptoms and can significantly shorten the duration of illness by two to four days. (37, 38) Elderberry may battle cold and flu viruses by increasing serum antioxidant capacity.

Elderberry syrup is a time-honored and palatable method for consuming elderberry and can be taken in a dosage of 15 mL four times a day until cold and flu symptoms abate. Elderberry lozenges are another option that also frequently contain other immune-supportive ingredients, such as zinc. Elderberry is safe to consume during pregnancy and has no known drug interactions.

8. Garlic: For Prevention and to Reduce Severity

The humble garlic bulb has quite a colorful history—in medieval times, garlic was worn on the body to ward off the “evil eye” and hung in homes to protect against supernatural entities believed to cause illness. Today, it has become clear that these superstitions held a grain of truth; while garlic may not ward off the evil eye or malicious spirits (or vampires), it does help to protect against disease-causing agents, including viruses.

Allicin, a compound released when a garlic clove is crushed, smashed, or chopped, has been shown to boost immunity against cold-causing viruses. (39) Aged garlic extract, a preparation that lacks the pungent scent of fresh garlic, may reduce cold and flu severity by enhancing the function of immune cells and reducing virus-induced inflammation. (40, 41)

The dose of aged garlic extract used in clinical trials for colds and flu is approximately 2.5 g per day. The optimal dosages of fresh and dried garlic for colds and flu have not been determined, but clinical trials examining the broad-spectrum antimicrobial properties of garlic have used dosages between 600 and 1,200 mg per day.

9. Ginger: For Prevention and Treatment

In China and Japan, ginger is a key supportive ingredient in traditional herbal formulas for treating the common cold. Scientific research indicates that fresh ginger may have antiviral activity against certain viruses that infect the respiratory system. (42)

To get the maximum antiviral benefits of ginger, I recommend making the following ginger tea recipe:

  1. Juice 1 to 2 pounds of ginger; place juice in a jar and refrigerate.
  2. Place 2 to 4 ounces of ginger juice in a mug with the juice of one-half lemon and a large tablespoon of honey. I recommend Beekeeper’s Naturals honey. Add one-eighth teaspoon of cayenne pepper and 6 ounces of hot water.
  3. Drink 2 to 6 cups of this a day, sipping slowly throughout the day.

10. Houttuynia: For Prevention and Treatment

Houttuynia cordata is a traditional Chinese herb active against multiple respiratory viruses, including influenza. It can be taken in a tincture or as a powdered dry herb. For viral respiratory infections, the recommended dose of tincture is one-fourth to one-half teaspoon six times per day or one-half teaspoon three to six times daily for the dried herb.

11. Licorice: For Prevention and Treatment

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a botanical medicine with broad-spectrum antiviral properties. Glycyrrhizin, the sweet-tasting constituent of licorice root, can inhibit the replication of influenza virus while also reducing virus-associated inflammation. (43)

Licorice can be taken in tincture form at a dosage of 30 to 60 drops up to three times a day or in capsules at a dosage of 4 g per day in two to three divided doses. Licorice should not be taken in large doses or for long periods during pregnancy because it may have harmful effects on the unborn child. The phytochemicals in licorice root also have blood pressure-raising and mild estrogenic effects, so it should not be taken for more than 10 days by people with hypertension, hypokalemia, hypernatremia, or low testosterone levels.

12. Lomatium: For Treatment

Lomatium is a member of the carrot family native to western North America. While studies on the antiviral activity of Lomatium are scarce, the herb has a long history of use by Native American peoples for the treatment of infections. Anecdotally, herbalists have found lomatium useful for treating several types of influenza.

Lomatium should not be taken during pregnancy. Some people may experience a rash, which seems to be harmless, upon ingestion of lomatium. According to herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner, the rash is typically dark red or purplish in color, covers the whole body, causes little to no itching or discomfort, and disappears in about a week’s time. Using lomatium as part of a mixture of herbs, rather than on its own, may prevent the rash.

13. Medicinal Mushrooms: For Prevention

Medicinal mushrooms are all the rage right now, and for a good reason: they have a broad spectrum of health benefits, including helping the immune system respond to viruses. Glucan, a polysaccharide found in medicinal mushrooms, enhances the immune response against the influenza virus. (44) Glucans are found in chaga, Cordyceps, reishi, and shiitake mushrooms.

Medicinal mushroom extracts are available in many different forms, including tinctures, capsules, and teas.

14. Probiotics: For Prevention

According to recent research, a healthy gut microbiota is crucial for initiating an appropriate immune response to the influenza virus. (45)

Fermented foods and probiotics that introduce beneficial bacteria to the gut are potent tools for preventing and fighting cold and flu viruses. A recent study found that when adults who suffered from frequent colds were supplemented with Lactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus casei, and Lactobacillus fermentum for 12 weeks, they experienced a significant reduction in the number of upper respiratory infections. (46) Eating lacto-fermented yogurt has also been found to reduce the risk of catching a common cold in healthy elderly individuals. (47)

In an animal study, mice were given Lactobacillus casei isolated from kimchi, a staple fermented vegetable dish in Korean cuisine. The mice treated with L. casei experienced reduced weight loss after virus infection and lower levels of viral replication in their lungs. (48)

Unfortunately, catching the flu does have some harmful effects on the gut; flu-infected patients experience reductions in intestinal microbiota diversity and increases in opportunistic E. coli and Enterococcus faecium. Taking Lactobacillus probiotics and eating lacto-fermented foods may help prevent or reduce these adverse effects.

15. Olive Leaf: For Prevention

Olive leaf contains three polyphenols—a type of micronutrient found in plant-based foods—with potent antiviral properties. Olive leaf extract changes the membrane of the influenza virus, preventing it from attaching to and penetrating cells. (49, 50)

Olive leaf can be taken in the form of a tincture, capsules, or tea. The typical dosage range is 500 to 1,000 mg per day.

16. Red Root: For Treatment

Red root (Ceanothus americanus) is native to the Americas. While there hasn’t been much scientific study on red root, the deep red tincture and tea extracted from its roots have long been used for treating respiratory infections.

In his excellent book Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging and Resistant Viral Infections, herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner provides a recipe for an herbal immune tonic that includes red root and several of the other antiviral botanicals I’ve mentioned above.

Here’s the formula for the immune-tonic combo:

  1. Mix two parts lomatium, two parts red root, two parts licorice, and one part isatis (all in tincture form).
  2. Take 30 to 60 drops mixed with 1 to 2 ounces of water each hour until condition improves. You may have trouble finding some of these botanicals locally, but you can get them fairly easily online.

17. Selenium: For Prevention

Selenium helps to balance and regulate the immune system and is crucial in optimizing your defenses against cold and flu viruses. Selenium deficiency has been found to cause the flu virus to mutate into more virulent forms, but replenishment of this trace mineral can improve the immune response to viral respiratory infections. (51, 52)

During cold and flu season, feel free to take 200 mcg of selenium three to four days a week. However, beyond the flu season, I don’t recommend supplementing with selenium long term because continuous selenium supplementation has been associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer in men. Instead of supplementing outside of cold and flu season, optimize your intake of selenium-rich foods such as:

  • Brazil nuts
  • Cremini mushrooms
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Cod
  • Shrimp
  • Tuna
  • Halibut
  • Scallops
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Lamb
  • Turkey

18. Vitamins A and D: For Prevention

Vitamins A and D work synergistically to support your immune health. In fact, host resistance and susceptibility to influenza infection appear to depend importantly on the ratio of vitamin D to vitamin A activity in the body. (53) Extra-virgin cod liver oil is an excellent source of vitamins A and D in the proper ratio for promoting optimal immune function.

19. Vitamin C: To Reduce Duration

Over the years, there has been much debate over whether vitamin C is useful for treating colds and the flu. A recent meta-analysis of studies concluded that extra doses of vitamin C taken at the onset of a cold significantly reduce its duration. (54) During cold and flu season, consider taking 1,000 to 4,000 mg of supplemental vitamin C per day. I recommend a liposomal vitamin C because it is rapidly absorbed and highly bioavailable.

20. Zinc: To Reduce Duration

Zinc is another immune-boosting nutrient that many people don’t get enough of in their diets. According to a review of trials that assessed the body of literature on zinc for the common cold, zinc administered within the first 24 hours of a cold can significantly reduce the duration and severity of symptoms. (55) I recommend taking 30 mg per day of zinc picolinate or zinc gluconate at the first sign of a cold to speed up your recovery.  

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For the Best Effect, Live a Healthy Lifestyle, Too

While the natural remedies I’ve mentioned above are excellent cold and flu fighters, they should be combined with healthy, ancestral lifestyle choices to achieve the greatest impact.

Getting high-quality sleep, reducing your stress, and eating a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet will do wonders to support your recovery from a cold or the flu.

Get Plenty of Sleep

Getting plenty of sleep is essential for recovering from colds and flu, as well as preventing their onset. Insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality are associated with reduced resistance to the common cold; this effect undoubtedly holds true for the flu as well, since sleep deprivation compromises immunity. (56)

In addition to getting plenty of sleep—around eight hours per night is a good goal—you should also work on optimizing your circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm disruption, caused by factors such as blue light exposure before bed and abnormal sleep patterns, primes the body for viral infection. (57)

Reduce Stress

Mental and emotional stress depresses the immune system, making it harder to fight off colds and flu. Stress reduction practices should be a crucial part of your recovery process; in fact, meditation has been found to reduce the severity of cold and flu illness. (58) If you want to reduce your stress but don’t know where to begin, try a meditation app such as Headspace, Calm, or Waking Up, or practice some easy breathing exercises.

Allow Yourself to Rest

In our 24/7 on-the-go society, busyness is often valued over rest. However, if you want to give your body the opportunity to heal from a cold or flu, then rest is essential. Give yourself permission to curl up with a good book and some hot tea (such as the immune-boosting ginger tea I mentioned above) or take a nap. Getting some much-needed rest will actually make you more productive by reducing the duration of your illness.

Eat a Nutrient-Dense, Whole-Foods Diet

Eating a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet is also crucial when recovering from a cold or the flu. Avoid sugar, refined grains, and industrial seed oils, which impair immune function, and instead focus on eating high-quality animal proteins, non-starchy vegetables, moderate amounts of starchy plants such as sweet potatoes, some vitamin C-rich fruit, and healthy fats.

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Cold and flu season comes around every year, but that’s the only thing about it that’s inevitable. You don’t have to be miserable if you catch a bug, if you use one or more of the natural cold and flu remedies I’ve discussed here. They’ll do wonders for reducing your symptoms and the length of your illness—or even preventing it—so you can get back to feeling like yourself in no time.

Now, I’d like to hear from you. What are your favorite natural cold and flu remedies? Will you consider trying any of the remedies in this article? Let me know in the comments below.

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